Black Friday College Football
We’ve seen some of the great divides in American culture play themselves out this month. There’s the usual quadrennial red voter vs. blue voter. In baseball we saw the old-fashioned writers go toe-to-toe with the modern sabermetricians in the American League MVP debate. Now it’s time to showcase America’s traditional Black Friday divide—inveterate shoppers against college football junkies. I’ve never shopped a sale on Black Friday so I can’t help there, but TheSportsNotebook will do what it can to prep college football fans for the chunk of TV games on tap for Black Friday college football.
The games this year are split between those that are consequential and those likely to be close. The most significant game as far as any conference championship goes is Nebraska’s visit to Iowa (Noon ET, ABC). The Cornhuskers lock up a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game with a win. Should the Hawkeyes—a 14.5 point underdog—pull the home shocker, it would open the door for Michigan.
When you looked at the schedule to start the year, this Nebraska road game would have jumped out as a real test. But Iowa is collapsing hard. The Hawkeyes are down to 4-7, and can’t make a bowl game. Since beating Michigan State in October, Iowa has lost five straight. They were beaten decisively by Penn State to start the streak and handily by Michigan last Saturday in the most recent defeat. Iowa lost by 11 to Northwestern and dropped close games to Purdue or Indiana.
Thus we have two problems—the first, and most obvious, is that whenever Kirk Ferentz plays the better teams in the Big Ten, they get their shorts handed to them. The second problem is that failure to split the Indiana/Purdue duo not only questions Iowa’s competence, but took them out of bowl contention. Essentially we’re asking a team that’s proven it isn’t very good to come up with a herculean effort in a game that means nothing to them.
Conversely, Nebraska seems to be gaining steam. Taylor Martinez’s play at quarterback has been excellent, both passing and running and Ameer Abduallah is now over the 1,000 yard mark at running back. The Huskers just hammered bowl-bound Minnesota last week, and the only black cloud over them is that top receiver Kenny Bell is listed as questionable with a neck injury. But to me, “questionable” means the player will likely be on the field and Bell’s presence will only matter if Iowa can take a lead into the second half.
Everything is pointing for Nebraska to play its way into next week’s conference championship game against Wisconsin. And if by some miracle the Cornhuskers lose? Michigan still has to win at Ohio State, against a Buckeye team playing to cap a perfect season for Urban Meyer. Go ahead and book those hotel rooms in Indianapolis for December 1, Husker fans. This Wisconsin fan will see you there.
PUSHING FOR A BOWL
In September, West Virginia was blowing out the scoreboard lights, Geno Smith was the Heisman frontrunner and the Mountaineers were seen as a Big 12 contender. On Friday, they take the field at Iowa State (3:30 PM ET, ABC) still scoring points, but Smith and the team have fallen from grace. West Virginia is at 5-5 and needs one more win to make a bowl game. They’ve got a home date with Kansas in their back pocket for next week, so this game isn’t a desperation spot. But it’s got the potential to be a good game. Iowa State is looking to climb up the Big 12 bowl ladder and got a big shot in the arm when they inserted freshman quarterback Sam Richardson into the lineup last week. Paul Rhoads’ Cyclones usually run the ball well and usually play good defense, but they’ve been one of the few conference teams that can’t light up the scoreboard through the air. Richardson showed he might have the potential to do that and he’ll face a defense that’s as bad as any in the league. The Over/Under line on this game is 68.5, and Richardson and Smith have the opportunity to blow that out of the water.
Syracuse started playing well too late to have a shot at the Big East title, but the Orange have played their way to 6-5 as they get for their season finale at Temple (11 AM ET, ESPN2). Ryan Nassib can put up some serious points in the air, although this team’s inconsistency and the fact the Owls have played some competitive games, given they upgraded from the MAC to the Big East this year and had to replace almost every starter. To get to 5-7, as they would do with a win, wouldn’t get anyone’s attention, but it would be a nice accomplishment and building block for the future. And really, if you don’t go shopping, what else are you going to do at 11 ET?
The Pac-12 will have two games on national television, with Washington-Washington State (3:30 PM ET, Fox) and Arizona State-Arizona (10 PM ET, ESPN). Everyone except Washington State is locked in for a bowl and the Cougars have no shot. With WSU seeming to be in turmoil, as receiver Marquess Wilson left the program with a few parting shots at Mike Leach, the Apple Cup is there for Washington to take.
WSU’s only chance is to turn it into a high-scoring game, the kind that the run-oriented Huskies aren’t suited for. But we’ve seen a consistent pattern of hard-nosed football beating spread-the-field stuff (this very league saw Stanford over Oregon and UCLA over USC last week), so Washington has to be the pick here.
Then at night, Rich Rodriguez gets another chance to showcase his offense, which isn’t all about throwing the football. Running back Ka’deem Carey has put up some obscene numbers the last two games, rushing for 570 yards. Yes, that is a two-game total, and senior quarterback Mike Scott’s still playing well. Arizona State has done a nice job under first-year coach Todd Graham in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but winning in Tucson would seem too much to ask of sophomore QB Taylor Kelly.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES
Last year on Black Friday, I was sitting in a Baltimore airport, watching the LSU-Arkansas game, one that had huge national title implications for both teams. This year it means nothing thanks to Arkansas. The Hogs are a 4-7 disaster and even at home, who’s ready to think they’ll rally the troops for John L. Smith in what’s sure to be his last game? The game has marginal importance to LSU—at 9-2, they are nominally in contention for an at-large BCS bid, but they would take several breaks. More than likely, the Tigers are going to be Cotton Bowl bound win or lose. This year’s LSU-Arkansas game kicks at 2:30 PM ET on CBS, but you’d have to be a fan of either team to look for it in the airport this year.
A TRIBUE TO THE MAC
By all rights, Friday should have been a big day for the Mid-American Conference, with games like Ohio-Kent (11 AM, ESPNU) promising significance in the division races. It didn’t work out that way, as Ohio faded and has now lost three games, while Kent in the East and Northern Illinois in the West have locked up the spots in next week’s conference championship game. It’s been an excellent year for this league, with non-conference scalps like Ohio winning at Penn State, and Kent nailing Rutgers, to pick a couple. Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch is my favorite player in the country this year and deserves a ticket to New York for the Heisman ceremony, even if he won’t get it.
It’s too bad the league couldn’t have had the exciting Friday finish they scheduled for, but it’s not for a lack of quality football. We’ll talk more about Kent and NIU next week in anticipation of their championship battle in Detroit.